What is a ‘model corporate citizen’?

W.R. Grace has launched a public-relations offensive coinciding with the release of the movie A Civil Action, insisting that it never polluted Woburn’s drinking water. The company has made heavy use of a 1993 article I wrote in which I referred to Grace as “one of Woburn’s model corporate citizens” for its cooperation in cleaning up contamination. Below is a letter I wrote to the Boston Globe (published January 5, 1999) explaining why I no longer think Grace is acting like a “model corporate citizen.”

December 30, 1998

Letters to the Editor
The Boston Globe
Box 2378
Boston, MA 02107

To the editor:

Scott Allen, in his article on Woburn’s environmental problems (“Movie Brings Toxic Tragedy Back to Life,” December 27), quoted from a 1993 article I wrote for the Boston Phoenix in which I asserted that W.R. Grace & Company had become “one of Woburn’s model corporate citizens.” Allen quoted me accurately and within context, making it clear that I was referring to Grace’s cooperation with government authorities in cleaning up contamination for which it had been found responsible. I continue to stand by that observation.

However, I am disturbed by Grace’s current public-relations campaign aimed at discrediting the movie A Civil Action and the 1995 book by Jonathan Harr on which it was based. Grace, on both its Web site and in press materials, makes use of my “model citizen” soundbite as though it were some sort of blanket absolution. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, in 1986 a US District Court jury found unanimously that Grace, through its own negligence, had contaminated two of Woburn’s drinking-water wells with poisonous industrial solvents. Although Judge Walter Jay Skinner set that verdict aside, he did so only because the jury — to no one’s surprise — provided contradictory answers to Skinner’s convoluted, highly technical written instructions. Yet even those contradictory answers made it clear that the jury believed the families’ lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, had essentially proven his case against Grace.

Unfortunately Schlichtmann, lacking the financial resources to move ahead with a retrial, was forced to settle for $8 million, with Grace refusing to concede any wrongdoing on its part. Thus the Woburn families Schlichtmann represented were denied the apology they had long said was one of their principal aims. Today Grace, by continuing to insist that chemicals dumped on its property never polluted the wells, does a disservice to the jury and to the families. I would not characterize Grace’s current stance as that of a “model corporate citizen.”

Dan Kennedy
Staff writer
The Boston Phoenix